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Men’s Basketball

Notre Dame survives Northeastern, 69-65, advances in NCAA Tournament

| Friday, March 20, 2015

PITTSBURGH — Just as Notre Dame appeared to find its rhythm after a sluggish first half, Northeastern surged.

And for a few tense minutes at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on Thursday afternoon, things looked all too familiar for Notre Dame, which hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2011.

But the No. 3 seed Irish snuck away with a 69-65 victory over No. 14 seed Northeastern in the opening round in the Midwest Region.

“We had really key defensive possessions to escape with a win,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said. “We thought our ball pressure could affect them, and that saved us, obviously.”

A 12-point Irish lead with six minutes remaining evaporated into a two-point edge and required a massive defensive effort in the game’s waning seconds. And with its season on the line, Notre Dame got the stop it needed.

For 20 seconds, Northeastern essentially failed to move past its 3-point line, much less fire a shot, as Irish junior forward Zach Auguste forced a steal just inside the arc.

“Just had to lock in, do whatever it takes to win and get the stop,” Auguste said of his mindset on the final possession.

And Notre Dame survived. And advanced.

“This group, more than any group I’ve had at Notre Dame, can guard to win games,” said Brey, who is in his 15th season in South Bend.

The Irish forced 16 Northeastern turnovers and converted them into 17 points.

“We’ve been known for offense,” senior guard/forward and captain Pat Connaughton said. “We have guys that can score. But our defense is gonna help us win games and win championships, to be quite honest.”

Notre Dame will face the winner of No. 6 seed Butler and No. 11 seed Texas on Saturday in Pittsburgh in the round of 32. The Irish haven’t advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2003.

Mired in a low-scoring and slow-paced first half, Notre Dame greased the hinges of its high-efficiency offense and took control at the outset of the second half. Auguste, senior guard Jerian Grant and sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson keyed the offensive fluidity and built a double-digit lead.

Brey kept Auguste in after the big man picked up his third foul just 14 seconds into the second half. Auguste responded with 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting.

“I thought he was really smart and still was a defensive presence for us,” Brey said. “But we needed him to score.”

Notre Dame lifted its lead to 11 with 6:24 remaining in the second half. Northeastern junior guard David Walker stole a Grant pass and drove the other way but couldn’t finish — missing twice. Two Huskies belly-flopped on top one another, diving for the loose ball, which Jackson scooped up. The sophomore buzzed downcourt, dazzling with his dribble before weaving a no-look feed to Auguste for a two-handed slam.

“That’s Top 10 SportsCenter, top five,” Brey said.

Notre Dame couldn’t create much breathing room in a slow-paced first half. The Irish led 31-27 after the opening 20 minutes, which were played within an eight-point window, even though Notre Dame shot 55 percent from the floor and Northeastern committed eight turnovers.

“That was gonna be a hard game,” Brey said. “They’re almost burning the clock a little bit. … That’s a real test mentally on your group.”

Auguste tallied his first two fouls within a 51-second span in the first five minutes of the first half, and he spent the next 11-plus minutes on the bench.

With Auguste out, Grant went to work, pouring in nine points after a slow start to the stanza; he didn’t record his first points until 11 minutes had elapsed. Grant connected on pull-up jumpers and his patented step-back two from just inside the 3-point stripe. The senior, who before the game was named one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy, given to the nation’s top player, finished with 17 points and five assists.

“He is the ultimate playmaker,” Brey said. “I’m proud of him because he didn’t get off to a very good start. He threw a couple into their band, one into our band.”

After stumbling to their first losing season since 1998-1999 and not reaching the NCAA tournament last year, the Irish returned to the dance and finally got out of the first round. In 2012 and 2013, Notre Dame lost as No. 7 seeds to Xavier and Iowa State, respectively. In 2011, the No. 2 seed Irish lost in the round of 32 to Florida State.

Brey said he “made them be happy” after the win, focusing on the positive result rather than the near loss. Brey added he’s drawing as many comparisons as he can to last weekend’s ACC tournament, in which Notre Dame defeated Miami (Fla.) by seven in its first game before toppling Duke and North Carolina en route to the conference title.

“Our first game in Greensboro was a hard game, and then we got in gear,” Brey said. “And I want us to think like that. The first one’s the hardest in this thing. We just did that in Greensboro and then got in a heckuva gear the next two nights.

“Let’s use that as a springboard.”

Notre Dame faces No. 6 seed Butler on Saturday in Pittsburgh at the Consol Energy Center following the Bulldogs’ win over Texas.

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About Mike Monaco

Senior Sports Writer Mike Monaco is a senior majoring in Film, Television and Theatre with a minor in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy as well as Business Economics. The O’Neill Hall native hails from the Boston area and is an aspiring play-by-play broadcaster.

Contact Mike